I want to control my feelings!
Clients often come into therapy dismayed and upset by the strong feelings that they are undergoing.
Sometimes the causes are "situational"...
You may be reeling from a recent blow, an emotional loss, a divorce, a death, a disappointment, a serious life transition. In these cases empathy, interpersonal support and especially time, are the forces that will naturally bring your feelings back down to what is normal, manageable and acceptable for you. You may be able to find these helpful resources in friends or in family circles, but when these supports are not accessible or effective you may find it useful to go through your process with another person in the safe space of a therapeutic relationship with a psychologist, coach or other professional helper.
...in other cases the situation is not so clear in origin.
You may suffer from a pervasive feeling of being unable to control yourself emotionally in more ordinary situations. Emotional expressions may be too forceful, inappropriate to the situation... or even absent when they should be present. As a result you may feel out of step or out of control or inadequate. You may also be criticized by others or feel that the situation is damaging interpersonal relationships that are important to you. The "uncontrolled" feelings may be anger, sorrow, shame, or jealousy. (We rarely worry that our positive emotions ....love, joy, pride, are out of control).
What does it mean to "control" feelings?
Most people's first instinct when it comes to the control of feelings, especially negative feelings like hurt or anger, is to wish for the ability to minimize them, to hide them when they are present, or to not feel negative feelings at all. The poster child for this attitude might be Mr. Spock, the character from the TV show "Star Trek" who prided himself on showing no emotions and making all decisions on the basis of pure logic. It was however one of the recurring themes of the show to prove over and over again that the emotionality of the other characters was wise and useful... even essential to good outcomes for the characters. Among the positive human emotions lost by Spock's excessive control were his love, compassion, pity, and joy. He could not be angered... but he could feel none of these positive emotions either.
Simple control of feelings by will power or the reduction of thought to logic and practicality do not create a good human life. It is easy enough to see that we need emotion and that emotion serves us. So when people develop fantasies of "ridding themselves of emotion" they are usually barking up the wrong tree.
A better thing to look for and develop might be what psychological researchers call "emotional intelligence"
What is emotional Intelligence?
Psychologists Salovey, Mayer and Caruso (2002) describe emotional intelligence as having four components:
But feeling like an emotional mess inside...
Individuals develop typical strategies for managing their emotions in public and in private.
How does therapy help "control" feelings?
Therapy provides a safe supportive environment in which to develop emotional intelligence by examining your own thoughts and feelings and emotional history in a compassionate, and curious way.
Positive benefits of developing emotional intelligence
Other research by Salovey et al (2002) suggests that the benefits of developing emotional intelligence are significant, including better leadership skills in the workplace, lower levels of aggression and less substance abuse including cigarette smoking and alcohol abuse.
Researcher Daniel Goleman (2002) argues that emotional intelligence may be the distinguishing characteristic of good leaders. It permits them to bring out the best in others, to build relationships and to solve disputes.
The human world is an emotionally charged and colorful world.
Emotion researchers suggest that up to 90% of emotional information is transmitted non-verbally, by tone, glance and gesture and that we are rarely consciously aware of how much we are transmitting or reading from others.
To have to deny, to lie about, to suppress feelings, or to be blind to the feelings of others causes tensions and anxieties that limit us in our ability to connect to and live with others. It is necessary to develop emotional intelligence because the ability to move easily and freely in the emotional world is a very important part of what it means to live an authentic and happy human life.
Goleman, D (2002, June 16). Could You Be a Leader? Parade Magazine, pp. 4-5.
Salovey, P., Mayer, J.D. & D. Caruso (2002). The Positive Psychology of Emotional Intelligence. In C.R. Snyder and S. J. Lopez (Eds.) Handbook of Positive Psychology (pp. 159-171) New York, Oxford University Press.